A New Poor People’s Movement Must Have Leadership from Poor People

Imagine if the U.S. women’s suffragette movement had been led entirely by men, and its rank-and-file had been mostly male. The movement would surely have been far less galvanizing and assertive.  American women might still be denied the vote.

While some white activists made the ultimate sacrifice – their lives – on behalf of equal rights for African Americans, had the Civil Rights Movement been led and populated primarily by white people, that campaign would also have been far less passionate, insistent, and effective.  The Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts might still be languishing in Congress.

Likewise, if the LGBT crusade had merely waited for straight Americans to voluntarily grant them the right to marry, they would probably not be able to obtain a marriage license in any state, and certainly not in the 18 states where LGBT Americans can now legally marry.

We should have no illusions about the challenges in building a movement with the strong leadership and engagement of low-income Americans.

In fact, no social movement in history has been won entirely by one people on behalf of another.

Thus it is absurd to believe that any attempt to finally end hunger or poverty in the U.S. can succeed without the significant involvement and leadership of low-income Americans.

Yet for decades, many of the upper-middle-class white activists who have led and populated the national anti-hunger movement have essentially taken the position that if they merely “put a face on hunger” – i.e., tell the stories of struggling Americans and display photos or videos of hungry Americans – then average Americans would be so moved and outraged that they would instantaneously support the public policies necessary to end the problem. While I am thankful that some organizations do give scholarships to allow some low-income individuals to attend anti-hunger conferences, most attendees are still upper-middle-class and white; relatively few hungry people – or even formerly hungry people – participate in these meetings, much less lead them. Can you image an American Federation of Teachers convention without educators or an American Legion convention without veterans? The failure of anti-hunger organizations to more fully include the people we represent has made us so weak that we have mostly failed to counter-act right wing policies that increase hunger.

While we certainly still have more work to do to help middle class Americans understand that it is in their self-interest to decrease poverty and hunger, our greatest single challenge is to mobilize our base, ensuring leadership and activism by many more of the 49 million Americans that suffer from food insecurity.

Imagine the political power behind 49 million Americans acting in unison to fight on their own behalf. After all, if you combined the 4 million members of the NRA, the 11 million members of the AFL-CIO member unions, the 1.5 million members of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the nearly 1 million members of the Sierra Club, and the 7 million members of the National Right to Life Committee, that’s still less than half the number of Americans who struggle against hunger.

We should have no illusions about the challenges in building a movement with the strong leadership and engagement of low-income Americans. Our entire society and our political system reinforce the cycles of empowerment for the wealthy and disempowerment for the impoverished.

For the nation’s elite, any activism is consistently rewarded. They vote regularly and donate to candidates.  As a result, elected officials tend to respond to their needs, which reinforces their perception that political activity matters, so they continue their political activism.

Low-income people can’t afford to donate to campaigns, and generally vote less frequently, so they get less attention from elected officials, which reinforces their original, negative, perception that politics don’t matter and their participation won’t make a difference anyway.  Even in Democratic Party primaries, wealthy people vote more frequently than low-income people.

Another challenge is that Americans who are low-income and food insecure don’t want to think of themselves as poor and hungry. In contrast, top goals of other movements were to make African American, women, and LGBT people proud of their identity. Yet the greatest goal of low-income and hungry people is usually to escape their condition. It’s darn hard to organize among individuals whose top goal is to no longer be a part of the group being organized.

But just because such organizing is difficult, doesn’t mean it isn’t both crucial and possible.

Witnesses to Hunger, started in 2008 by Dr. Mariana Chilton, is a research and advocacy project partnering with what they call the “real experts on hunger—mothers and caregivers of young children who have experienced hunger and poverty.” Through their photographs and testimonials, the Witnesses advocate for their own families and others and seek to create lasting changes on a local, state and national level.

In New York City, the group I manage, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, coordinates a Food Action Board (FAB) program to train low-income New Yorkers to lead advocacy efforts. FAB members lobby elected officials, testify at public meetings, and communicate through local and national media.

Our current FAB members are diverse. Darrel Bristow is a father of four who previously served in the Marines.  Mariluz Brito is a single mother of three who is unemployed and struggles against hunger, but even though she immigrated legally, she has not been in the U.S. long enough to qualify for federal SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits. Soraya Diaz is a part-time student at Lehman College in the Bronx, who lives with her elderly grandmother and mother. Ann Jenkins retired from her job as a receptionist at Albert Einstein Hospital and now needs SNAP to feed her family. Oralia Morand is a longtime volunteer in various soup kitchens and pantries who is the widow of a veteran. Jackie Williams is also an active volunteer, a single woman with breast cancer and a SNAP recipient, who performs freelance work when she can.

When these courageous fighters speak with elected officials or the media, the conversation is entirely different than when I do. They speak with an urgency and poignancy that no non-poor advocate can even approximate. They transform policy requests from abstract notions that can be negotiated away over time into flesh-and-blood demands that must be met immediately.

It’s much harder for Members of Congress to explain to a SNAP recipient who is standing right in front of them why they are proposing SNAP cuts than it is to explain it to a mere advocate.  For example, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted in January for a Farm Bill with more than $8 billion in SNAP cuts, two-thirds of House Republicans, and nearly half of House Democrats, voted for the cuts. But, because low-income people in New York City were so vocal in opposition to the cuts, as were local hunger groups, 10 out of the 11 House members from the city voted against them.

Both current events and history prove that direct advocacy by low-income Americans fighting for their own interests can have a massive impact.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., responding to near-starvation conditions found in parts of the U.S. in the 1960s, viewed access to food as a civil rights issue, saying: “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger?” King made the hunger issue a central component of his Poor People’s Campaign. After King’s assassination, the movement, led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, camped out on the Washington Mall to dramatize the issue and call for the expansion and creation of federal nutrition assistance programs. These efforts generated widespread media attention.

In the years following the encampment on the Mall, the president and Congress jointly expanded the Food Stamp Program and federal summer meals programs for children from relatively small pilot projects into large-scale programs, and created the National School Breakfast Program and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program which provides nutrition supplements to low-income pregnant woman and their small children.

These expansions succeeded strikingly in achieving their main goal: ending starvation conditions in America. In 1979, the Field Foundation sent a team of investigators back to many of the same parts of the U.S. in which they had previously found high rates of hunger in the late 1960s. They found dramatic reductions in hunger and malnutrition and concluded: “This change does not appear to be due to an overall improvement in living standards or to a decrease in joblessness in these areas… The Food Stamp Program, the nutritional components of Head Start, school lunch and breakfast programs, and…WIC have made the difference.”

These efforts proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that, when poor people band together for peaceful actions to push the democratic system to meet their needs, they can have spectacular results. Conversely, over the succeeding decades—when serious organizing efforts among low-income people lagged—our political system outsourced jobs, reduced wages, and cut poverty and nutrition programs, and, consequently, hunger soared.

That is why every poverty and hunger group in the country should begin or expand their efforts to better engage low-income people, whether such activities are modeled on the Witnesses to Hunger, our FABs, or other proven models. Foundations and private donors should also encourage these endeavors by funding them.

The time is long overdue for another, true Poor People’s Campaign. As is the case with every successful movement, the people with the most to gain will always be the activists who make the biggest difference.



First Person

Invest in Residents Who Want to Work

My name is Gary Crum and I am a proud resident of the Oliver community in Baltimore. I am also an employee of The Reinvestment Fund Development Partners (TRFDP)—founded by Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) and The Reinvestment Fund (TRF)—which develops land and buildings for affordable housing in East Baltimore.

I have lived in Oliver for the entire 31 years of my life.  In the last two years, I have buried more than nine friends and family members—six of them because of gun violence. You can’t tell a grown man not to sell drugs if you don’t have anything else to offer him. I got into trouble early in my life, and I was locked up for drugs. When I got out and got my second chance, I chose a different path. But my friends lived a certain lifestyle—a street life. Where we live, without a job, in order to eat you have to live a street life. This is the reality and you can’t escape it.

After my best friend, Yarndragus, was shot in the middle of the street in broad daylight, I knew I had to make a change.

If those six friends could’ve found good jobs, they would still be alive today. That is why I believe we have to get Baltimore and Maryland working.  I have been working with TRF and BUILD for the last two years, and I am grateful.  I have seen firsthand how change starts—with meaningful work for the residents of the neighborhoods.

Now, I work with young people who want to work. I take them to job fairs and to apply wherever I see companies hiring—from the new hotels being built down downtown to restaurants to construction sites throughout the city. It’s easy to get 50 young men and women to come with me to apply, but you can see the frustration in their faces when no one in the group gets hired. Our young people want to work, but there’s nowhere for them to go to find a job.

The jobs that TRF and BUILD have created have rebuilt my mixed-income community. The neighborhood I live, work and volunteer in—once drug-stricken—is now vibrant with life, joy and excitement. This past year, I and three co-workers enrolled in school paid for by TRF and BUILD. I passed a real estate class and my co-workers passed an electrician class.  I am now an assistant property manager.  I also bought my first car this year. I am excited for this job, but I could have also been depressed.

If I didn’t get this job, I would have had to go to a job hub day after day to fill out application after application. I would have had to choose whether or not to go back to school and rack up loan debt with no guarantee of a job on the other end. If I didn’t have a job, I might be out on the streets or in jail or forced to sell drugs. So, I’m standing up for myself and for the young people in my community who want to work. I’m standing with TRF and BUILD who are putting people to work, and I hope our elected officials will stand with us too.

So as the song says: “Ain’t no stopping us now: we’re on the move!”

To succeed, this is what we need: Any shovels going into the ground in Maryland over the next 10 years need to be held by Baltimoreans and Marylanders.  Baltimore approved $1 billion in school construction funding, and hundreds of millions of dollars are going into infrastructure improvements in the area. We are asking our elected leaders to invest in residents who want to work, and we are working to get voters to the polls to make sure our leaders know they are accountable to residents.




The Nation and TalkPoverty

The Nation is the oldest weekly political magazine in the United States. We were founded by abolitionists in 1865 and, spurred by that noble cause, we’ve committed ourselves to giving voice to underserved, and often ignored (and maligned and marginalized) members of society. We’re a reporter’s notebook and an activist’s bullhorn; naturally, poverty coverage is in our DNA.

In April 1929, six months before the Crash, Paul Blanshard reported from Greenville, S.C., letting millworker Gladys Caldwell (a pseudonym) explain to readers how she keeps her family alive in “How to Live on Forty-six Cents a Day.”

While running for Governor of California in September 1934, Upton Sinclair wrote “End Poverty in Civilization,” urging Nation readers to support his West Coast crusade.

And in “Poor, Proud, and Primitive,” from May 1959—several years before the region’s plight became a national issue—Harry W. Ernst and Charles H. Drake visited West Virginia’s coal country, discovering, “in this sweet land of liberty… the shaggy, shoeless children of the unwanted—the ‘hillbilly’ coal miners who have been displaced by machines and largely left to rot on surplus government food and the small doles of a half-hearted welfare state.”

We’re proud that, in keeping with this tradition, we worked with Greg Kaufmann in late 2011—when coverage in much of the media was sorely lacking—to develop This Week in Poverty, a weekly blog designed to keep the issue front and center for our readers. “We Can Reduce Poverty,” Kaufmann declared in his first entry, a hopeful note on which to begin his exploration of failed policy, public indifference, and political ineptitude. We were determined to examine poverty, and to make sure that the voices of low-income people themselves were represented.

It was also important for us to show readers how to get involved. “It’s time to stop bemoaning ‘the lack of political will’ to take on poverty and focus on what we are doing to create that political will,” Greg wrote last October. “[T]here will be no significant change without a truly broad-based movement….” In last year’s post on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Greg explained how the CIW had indeed created that political will: Its Campaign for Fair Food “forg[ed] an alliance between consumers and farmworkers” and drew non-activists (that is, anyone who shopped for food and vegetables) into the fight against illegal employment practices (including rampant sexual harassment) and criminally low wages (including involuntary servitude).

Turning on the bullhorn, Greg included at the end of his This Week in Poverty posts a digest that comprised ways to get involved (“Tell Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program”); clips and other resources (“This map shows where the world’s 30 million slaves live. There are 60,000 in the U.S.”); and vital statistics (“Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers”). This Week in Poverty represented some of the best examples of The Nation’s mission of bringing reportorial attention to issues while also drawing attention to solutions; of highlighting individuals working to alleviate or end poverty; propagating new and creative initiatives; and celebrating those sweet victories when values and change align.

Greg’s effort to push poverty into the 2012 presidential campaign included a series called #TalkPoverty. “Thirteen Questions for the First Presidential Debate” was a real highlight. Not only did it garner a response from the Obama campaign, but #TalkPoverty also took off on Twitter, where it still thrives today. We were thrilled when the Half in Ten campaign and its activists used #TalkPoverty to push their own questions at debate moderators and built a social media campaign around it.

Although I have mixed feelings about Greg’s decision to be a full-time activist instead of a full-time reporter, I am excited for this new project. (I am also pleased he will continue to write a monthly column for, beginning in June.)

I believe will succeed in bringing to the forefront important voices in the fight against poverty. I have always believed that many of the solutions to poverty are found by the people who have worked on this issue for years in virtual anonymity, and also in the experiences of people struggling in poverty themselves. While media coverage of poverty has improved since we launched This Week in Poverty, there still needs to be much, much more. I hope will be a resource for reporters who are looking for stories, and I wish it success. The Nation and I look forward to supporting this important and exciting effort.



A New Tool to Address Hunger in High-Poverty Communities

The 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty has helped bring renewed public attention to poverty, opportunity, and the safety net.  Debates over potential new initiatives in these areas should take account of the accomplishments of existing programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, and the school breakfast and lunch programs.  And, the school meals programs have an important new tool — community eligibility — that can make them even more effective in reducing hunger in high-poverty communities.  But eligible schools must act by June 30 to take advantage of this opportunity.

I’ve worked on the school meals programs for over 35 years, starting when I was in charge of the federal food assistance programs in the Agriculture Department during the Carter Administration.  They have long served a vital role and have continued to improve over the years with healthier meals and greater efficiency.

Under community eligibility, schools in which at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free school meals automatically, without submitting an application, can serve free meals to all students.  Students are approved without an application if they have been identified by another program (such as SNAP) as being low-income, or if they are at risk of hunger (for example, because they are homeless).

The option has been phasing in since 2011, and now, for the first time, will become available nationwide for the 2014-2015 school year.  The lists of eligible schools in all states are available here.  But schools have only until June 30 to opt in, so school districts need to move quickly to embrace this opportunity.

Community eligibility has led to a striking increase in the number of children in high-poverty areas eating school breakfast and lunch.  In schools in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan that have used the option for two years, lunch participation rose by 13 percent and breakfast participation rose by 25 percent, with 29,000 more low-income children eating breakfast daily.

This model of connecting low-income children to assistance is effective for several reasons:

  • It’s targeted.  School meals have always been available free of charge to low-income children, but community eligibility expands the school meals programs’ reach in communities with high concentrations of poverty.  Over 80 percent of the students participating in community eligibility schools in its first two years had been approved for free or reduced-price meals the prior year.
  • It’s administratively simple.  Community eligibility not only connects more low-income children to nutritious food, but also cuts red tape.  Families don’t have to complete applications or provide information on their income, and schools don’t have to process those applications or have a cashier figure out whether to provide a free or reduced-price meal every time a child goes through the lunch line.  A related benefit is that students can eat in the cafeteria without worrying about any stigma from receiving a free meal. Moreover, schools that have adopted community eligibility report administrative savings from streamlining their meals programs.  Those savings, combined with the drop in per-meal costs when more children eat, help to cover the costs of providing meals to more students.
  • It promotes opportunity.  Eating breakfast and lunch helps children start the school day ready to learn and remain focused throughout the day.  Schools that have taken steps to increase school breakfast participation, for example, report that discipline referrals and behavior problems went down and student attentiveness and attendance went up.

The national debate on poverty will continue, but let’s take this practical next step right now:  encourage the schools and districts in your state that are eligible for community eligibility to take the option.

Connecting low-income children to good nutrition to help them grow, learn, and thrive is something we all ought to be able to agree on.



A Just State, Not a Welfare State

This past November, Pope Francis wrote, “Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality” (Joy in the Gospel, par. 204) In Detroit, at the end of February 2014, I saw this challenge embodied in people striving to create a more inclusive economy.

At Mercy Education Project for women and girls, Sharon talked to me about her secret: she had never told her husband or three daughters that she never graduated from high school. She fought through mental illness and worked hard to keep her family together, but she could not compete in an economy without a GED.

Sharon had a nightshift job, but could not advance unless she had a graduation certificate. It was her reading that was tripping her up. She had a learning disability and never learned how to compensate for it. As a result, she had come to dread school and the failure she associated with it.

Because of the needs of her family, Sharon came to Mercy Education and discovered that she was very capable. She entered Mercy’s welcoming community, improved her reading and math skills, and earned her GED.

The next day Sharon went to her employer with her diploma in hand and he said, “Today is your lucky day!” Just that morning, a worker had left so there was an opening on the day shift. Sharon moved into that new position with increased pay. All of her hard work was beneficial for herself, her family and her employer.

On the other side of Detroit I met Kristine, whose flashing eyes and ready smile are a magnetic attraction for anyone who walks within ten feet of her. She wrestled with dyslexia all of her life.  Although her mom was a champion for her needs, it wasn’t until she was an adult and went to the Dominican Literacy Center that she received the individualized attention that she needed. At the Center, she learned how to compensate for her disability.

With her new skills and engaging personality Kristine became a part-time mentor at the Center. This eventually led to a full-time position. She is now truly at the heart of the mentoring program, encouraging and supporting other adults as they strive to gain essential skills.

Marcella, for example, came for tutoring and said she didn’t talk to anyone until Kristine talked with her. Then she began to share her story and her struggles with reading and math. The tutoring made all of the difference for Marcella as she gained confidence in her skills. She became a mentor to adults who were new to the Center. Marcella is now proficient with computers, has enrolled in a QuickBooks programing project, and continues to serve as an individual mentor. She delights that she is now “giving back” to others.

Another woman at the Dominican Center, Elizabeth, also said that Kristine helped her as she struggled to stay off drugs and learn to read. Kristine encouraged her to create a flyer for a cleaning business that Elizabeth wanted to start. Because of that flyer, Elizabeth is now employed and celebrating her steps into the labor force. Elizabeth and her employer take pride in Elizabeth’s personal growth and the contribution she is making to the business with her improved reading and math skills.

Finally, Antonio told me that Kristine was the person who encouraged him to first come to the Center. He had always been a good kid in school, but was extremely shy and afraid to speak up when he didn’t understand what was going on, and he could not read. He got passed along from grade to grade but had severe dyslexia. Although he received his high school diploma he had been afraid to tell anyone about his struggles. Because of Dominican, Antonio now spoke to me with confidence about how much he had learned and where he was headed.

The Mercy Education Program and Dominican Center—both started and sponsored by Catholic Sisters—are geared to addressing income disparities in our nation. Through individual tutoring and small classes they are making a difference as adults wrestle with lifelong limitations. But what is often missed is that they both use some government funding to pay for their programs. They combine government money with donations, grants and volunteers—a public-private partnership that is making change happen. But it is only one step in many that are necessary to change the face of poverty in our society.

We need more centers, not fewer. We need more employment, not less. We need better wages so that work does pay. We need to restructure some of our educational programs so that students do not get lost or discouraged. All of the people I met in Detroit were invested in making a difference in their city. They were not seeking a “welfare state” – they were looking for a “just state,” and they are well on their way to making something new in their city.

Pope Francis is right. We are all needed to further the quest for the common good. That is what is happening in parts of Detroit. May it be realized in our entire nation.